Prefatory remarks and background: I do hope you will go on a journey with me. The intellectual and spiritual roots of the tree of authenticity are worth exposing as if we are to garden it to health. I am specifically worried that we are tempted to think that 1) authentic people are either radical individualists or 2) conforming members of thoughtless society. The exploration of authenticity has led me back to my intellectual roots, to an exploration through existential literature beginning with Kierkegaard in the mid-1800s and taking me through the 1960s with Camus, Sartre, and Buber. Even more wonderfully, existentialism would not be understood in its vibrancy without at least some literary exploration as well.
You will understand, firsthand, the need to be authentic. We cannot properly understand our engagements in romantic love and friendship unless they are somehow genuine, humble, honest, and vulnerable – in other words, authentic. You will have a kind of know-how in connecting authenticity to our work lives under the term “passion”. And if you have read my work before, as many of you have (thank you!) then you will know that authenticity is a moral ideal worth pursuing. You can see this in my “Authenticity in Times of Uncertainty”, and “Naggingly Abstract Freedom”. I believe a sufficient exposition of existentialism adds a much-needed understanding of what it means to be authentic.
More than this, I am concerned with interdisciplinary work which connects broader scholarly work to real-life concerns. Critical theory is one example that you will see in my “The Human Person in the Age of Mass Reproduction” and “Trump as an Agitator: Prophets of Deceit“. Disciplinary misreadings of classical economic theory is another of my concerns as demonstrated by “Adam Smith: The Moral Dimensions of Economic Life“. This exploration into Existentialism reflects such an interdisciplinary concern because, as a movement, it transcends philosophy, literature and literary criticism, and theology. It has much to recommend that is not siloed in any one discipline or sphere of life.
However, this journey is long – so I am dividing it into parts. In this part, let me show how an existentialist understanding of authenticity responds to my second worry (stated above), that of appearing in the world in thoughtless conformity to society.
The contemporary world has not been ready to host the aspiration to authenticity. While “being ourselves” is advocated – demanded even – deep in our hearts we know that it is dangerous. We seem to be in a situation where either we conform to a social order under the name of false authenticity, or we risk being trampled on by mass society if we expose ourselves in vulnerability, whether that happens in the form of criminalization or in disgrace and shame, or if to one who is exploitative (like a corporation or a narcissist). If we look back into the history of Western thought to the origins of authenticity, to Rousseau and the writers that led up to the French Revolution, we may not find the properly articulated resources that would make the pursuit to being more authentic a feasible endeavor. However, in the following, I want to revive a realistic pursuit of authenticity by exploring the vibrant articulations of authenticity advocated by the existentialist writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is there that we will discover the kind of authenticity we know, and how it can inform our lives in very practical ways. If acquainted with existentialism, one may have thought it was already dead. But we should not be so quick to perform an autopsy. If you aren’t acquainted with existentialism, all the better, or so some would say.
In the middle of the 1950s, conservative writers were already engaged in a definitive summing up of the “existentialist revolt.” What had begun, they said, in the eccentric religiosity of Kierkegaard had ended in the open rebellion of Sartre against all that was decent and sane; and it had even penetrated Christian thought with the contagion of situation ethics. But the church was on the watch; the warning had been sounded. Indeed, the encyclical Humani Generis may have been the reason why Gabriel Marcel repudiated the title “existentialist.” Some of the most famous gossip within the existentialist tradition happened between Camus and Sartre, who would not count themselves in a group in which the other was a member. But that was not a reason to dismiss either, since it was the principles of existentialism that constitute their greatest threat to Christian institutions. After a short and competent mopping-up operation in the theological reviews, another victory would be enshrined in the revised editions of the theological manuals, and all would continue in good order. And there can be no question that the existentialism of the forties and fifties was dangerous to the Christian church in many ways, whether understood as Catholic or in the many denominations of Protestantism. Existentialism, in its atheistic and secular form, still is.
The fact that existentialism is less discussed today than it was in 1950 or 1955 does not mean that it has ceased to be active. However, its activities are far less nefarious and a great deal more useful than they were then thought to be. We can now safely admit the existence of Christian existentialism is active not only in philosophy but also in the renewed Biblical theology that has happened since the years of Vatican II (1962 – 65).
If in talking about existentialism, we distinguish between the “movement,” the gossip about the movement, and the cogent reality of existentialist thinking, we can perhaps say that both the movement and the gossip about it are a great deal less actual now than they were fifty to seventy years ago.
The “existentialist movement” (“revolt”) is associated in the popular mind with the French literary existentialists, especially the austere and ironic genius of Camus, lost to us in death, and the bitter Sartre of World War II, also to a great extent lost, or transformed, in his own brand of Marxism. It is true that, in canonizing Genet, Sartre showed an undiminished aspiration to meet the popular need for existentialism to be scandalous, and, in refusing the Nobel Prize, he improvised a hasty defense against being identified, himself, with the French literary establishment.
Was Sartre perhaps caught in his own vicious circle? He was probably right in saying that society needs people like Genet to be what they are. But was he right in assuming that the free acceptance of this evil lot, and the total commitment to evil as an act of revenge, was the way to authenticity and liberation? Was it not logical fulfillment of society’s perverse demand that the criminal be totally evil? Was it not then a final capitulation? Sartre should have accepted the reward that our confused and distraught society offered him. He earned it, in his own way.
The existentialism which is most active and of most vital interest to the church today is neither as well-publicized nor as thoroughly discussed as the literature of those earlier days: it is the existentialist theology, both Protestant and Catholic, which owes so much to Heidegger.
We must at once admit that the loaded word “existentialist” must here be used with great prudence. It has been a term of censure among Catholics, and people are still in the habit of blaming everything they fear or dislike upon it. To suggest that Karl Rahner, for instance, might be tinged with “existentialism” (he was, to some extent, a disciple of Heidegger) would in some circles be quite enough to damn him, but it would hardly be enough to convict him of being nothing more than a Catholic Sartre. That is the trouble with gossip. Since for various good reasons existentialism can still be regarded as “dangerous,” and since gossip permits people to enjoy danger vicariously, at no greater risk than that of being misled, this article should neither excite nor mislead the reader.
What is Existentialism? The Existential Critique of Mass Society
Existentialism is an experience and an attitude, rather than a system of thought. As soon as it begins to present itself as a system, it denies and destroys itself. Non-objective, elusive, concrete, dynamic, always in movement, and always seeking to renew itself in the newness of the present situation, genuine existentialism is (like Zen Buddhism and like a Christian mysticism of denial) hidden in life itself. It cannot be distilled into verbal formulas. Above all, the journalistic clichés about existentialist nihilism, pessimism, anarchism, and so on, are totally irrelevant, even though they may have some foundation in certain existentialist writings. These writings cannot fairly be taken as representative of genuine existentialism.
Avoiding a technical definition of something which is not technical, let us begin with a concrete example. Existentialism has expressed itself most unambiguously in literature, where it is free from technicalities and formulaic definitions. Literature offers us an example quite close to home, in the novels and short stories of Flannery O’Connor who impactfully employs an existential intuition. She does so, of course, without declamation, without program, without distributing manifestoes, and without leading a parade. The best existentialism is neither partisan nor programmatic. It is content with the austere task of minding its own literary, philosophical, or theological business.
A casual consideration of the “good” and the “bad” people in Flannery O’Connor will help us to appreciate the existentialist point of view – that point of view that is so easily obscured when it presents itself in terms of a program. For example, in her story, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” evil is not so much in the gangsters, so fatally and so easily “found,” as in the garrulous, empty-headed, folksy, sentimental old fool of a grandmother. Not that she is deliberately wicked, but the fact is, she does get everybody killed. It is her absurd and arbitrary fantasy that leads them directly to the “good man” and five deaths. She is a kind of blank, a void through which there speaks and acts the peculiar nemesis too if we could but see it as she did. This frightening action of Sophoclean nemesis in and through the right-thinking man who is null and void is spelled out in its full and public identity in types like Rayber, the positivist schoolteacher in The Violent Bear It Away.
The first thing that anyone notices in reading Flannery O’Connor are that her moral evaluations seem to be strangely scrambled. The good people are bad and the bad people tend to be less bad than they seem. (From a 21st-century perspective of Neo from the Matrix and Tyler Durden of Fight Club, such moral evaluation seems to be too common that it escapes notice.) This is not in itself unusual. But her crazy people, while remaining as crazy as they can possibly be, turn out to be governed by a strange kind of sanity. In the end, it is the sane ones who are incurable lunatics. The “good,” the “right,” and the “kind” do all the harm. “Love” is a force for destruction, and “truth” is the best way to tell a lie.
Rayber is, by all standards, the kind of person our society accepts as normal, not only a sane man but a kind one. A teacher, a man with forward-looking and optimistic perspectives, illuminated and blessed with a scientific worldview, he is acquainted with all the best methods for helping people to become happy and well adjusted in the best of all possible societies.
It is he who sees through nonsense, prejudice, and myth. It is he who gets the Bible student to sleep with the frustrated girl from the woods, to relieve her tensions and open her up to a more joyous and fulfilled mode of life. It is he who, when their child is born, wants to protect him against the fantastic uncle, the prophet, and the believer. It is he who suffers permanent damage (deafness) trying to liberate the boy from the awful trammels of obscurantism and superstition. Rayber is our kind of man, is he not? A sound and practical person who is well-adjusted in a scientific age. True, he is not a Christian, but there are plenty of Christians who think more or less as he does, and he could perhaps be persuaded that we too are reasonable.
Yet as we read Flannery O’Connor we find an uncomfortable feeling creeping over us: we are on the side of the fanatic and the mad boy, and we are against this reasonable zombie. We are against everything he stands for. We find ourselves nauseated by the reasonable, objective, “scientific” answers he has for everything. In him, science is so right that it is a disaster.
Such is the dire effect of reading an existentialist.
Rayber wants to help the wild boy to find himself by forgetting the madness he learned from the prophet, and to become a docile and useful citizen in a world of opportunity where he can, at last, have everything. Rayber will not count the cost of the sacrifice that must be paid. “Now I can make up for all the time we’ve lost. I can help correct what he’s done to you, help you to correct it yourself. This is our problem together.”
It was perhaps not kind of the boy, Tarwater; to be so suspicious of the world of reason, psychiatry, and togetherness, or to look with such an ugly glint upon the teacher’s hearing aid. (“What you wired for?” he drawled. “Does your head light up?”)
Alas, we share his cruel satisfaction. We have come to agree that the positivist Mephistopheles from Teachers College is a pure void, a mouthpiece for demons.
“I forget what color eyes he’s got,” the old man would say, irked. “What difference does the color make when I know the look? I know what’s behind it.”
“What’s behind it?”
“Nothing. He’s full of nothing.”
“He knows a heap,” the boy said. “I don’t reckon it’s anything he don’t know.”
“He don’t know it’s anything he can’t know,” the old man said. “That’s his trouble. He thinks if it’s something he can’t know then somebody smarter than him can tell him about it and he can know it just the same. And if you were to go there, the first thing he would do would be to test your head and tell you what you were thinking and how come you were thinking it and what you ought to be thinking instead. And before long you wouldn’t belong to yourself no more, you would belong to him.”
This, in brief, is the existentialist case against the scientistic and sociological society. It is a brief for the person and for personal, spiritual liberty against determinism and curtailment.
The old man was doing Rayber no injustice. This is precisely what his hubris consists in, the conviction that the infinite rightness and leveling (re: alienating) power of the “scientific method” has given him a mandate to transform other people into his own image: which is the image of nothing. Even though he is “nothing,” yet others, he knows it well, must do things his way since he has science on his side.
If for Flannery O’Connor, the mild, agnostic, and objective teacher is not so much evil as pure void, and if this is what it means to be a villain – this desire to reduce everyone else by an infallible process to the same void as oneself – we begin to understand existentialism in its passionate resistance against the outlook that claims itself as science. We also begin to see why, after all, existentialism is no immediate danger in a society almost entirely inclined to the consolations of sociological methods that pervades our public policy.
This is particularly pertinent for us today. Existentialism speaks particularly strongly to persons who do not have all the answers and do not pretend to have them. We find ourselves embattled in concerns and worldviews that are not easily answered. There is the war in Ukraine; there is the presence of COVID-19, which was projected to be something to which we were to be immune, but now are merely vaccinated against. We live not in complete certainty and control, but in an unsettling ambiguity of whether we are even heading in the right direction. Existentialism offers neither attractions nor peril to people who are perfectly convinced that they are headed in the right direction, that they possess the means to attain a reasonably perfect happiness, and that they have a divine mandate to remove anyone who seems inclined to interfere with this aim. Existentialism calls into question the validity, indeed the very possibility, of such an aim. But, for sociology as a method, its “rightness” is never in question. Nor, indeed, is its nature. The sociologist does not even need to be quite sure where she is going. The direction must be the right one since it is determined by his processes and by scientific method. For her, the only question that really matters is how to keep on moving faster and faster in the same direction. Philosophy reduces itself to knowing how: know-how. The question what is relatively insignificant. As long as one knows how; the what will take care of itself. You just initiate the process and keep it going. The what follows. In fact, the how tends more and more to determine the what.
The question of a who also turns out to be irrelevant except insofar as it is reducible to a how. That is to say that what matters is not the person so much as the position he occupies, the influence he wields, the money he makes, and his general usefulness in getting things done, or at least his place in the machinery of society. Thus a man is identified not by his character but by his function or by his income, not by what he is but by what he has. If he has nothing, he does not count, and what is done to him or with him ceases to be a matter of ethical concern.
Pragmatism and the social sciences are therefore interested in the question of how. Traditional metaphysics, whether scholastic (realist) or modern (idealist), is interested in the question of what (the essence). Existentialism wants to know who. It is interested in the authentic use of freedom by concrete persons. That concern is the source of what I’d like to call, “The Great Articulation.” The objective truth of science remains only half the truth – or even less than that – if the subjective truth, the true-being (Wahrsein), of the subject is left out of account.
The who needs articulation.
This true being is not found by examining the subject as if it were another object. It is discovered in personal self-fulfillment, which is to say: in freedom, responsibility, dialogue (with man and God), and love. Existentialism is, in other words, concerned with authentic personal identity, and concerned with it in a way that sociology and psychology can never be. (Psychological tests are neither interested in nor capable of finding out who thinks, only by describing how one reacts.) The chief complaint that sets existentialism over against the social sciences in diametric opposition is this: the claim of science and technology to expand the capacity of the human person for life and happiness is basically fraudulent because technological society is not the least interested in values, still less in persons: it is concerned purely and simply with the functioning of its own processes. Human beings are used merely as means to this end, and the one significant question it asks in their regard is not who they are but how they can be most efficiently used.
And it is this realization that bears the critique against mass, technological society and, its bride, instrumental reason.